Robert Longo / Art as weapon against dark times

Robert Longo in conversation with Maria Abramenko about art, its creation and perception.

What is your opinion on political art, do you think that there is a connection between art and politics at all?

This has a simple answer. Making art in itself is a political act–the freedom of expression.

Does an artist have a moral responsibility towards the society?

As an artist, I feel a moral imperative. Part of my job is to create works which–I hope–will enable the viewer to see better and to navigate the images of our image storm more intelligently in the world. A lot of my work is based in frustration and an appeal for the viewer to take a position. Traditionally artists are reporters of the times that we live in. The greatest responsibility I feel lies in encouraging people to slow down and to look closer. My work is extremely labor-intensive. When I choose to devote time and labor by constructing an image out of the fragile medium of charcoal, it is important to consider that my selection of this image emerged out of the massive onslaught of images we are confronted with daily. We forget to slow down and truly see what we are looking at.

It was an unforgettable experience seeing “Death Star” at Basel two years ago. Can you tell us about this incredible installation?

The origin story is that in 1993 I made a sculpture made of 18,000 38-caliber bullets covering the surface of a 36-inch diameter sphere, suspended by a steel armature. This was the first Death Star, and the 18,000 bullets corresponded to the approximate number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. in 1993. The idea began when my 15-year- old son came home and excitedly announced that one of the kids at the local basketball court had pulled a gun during a fight. His excitement alarmed me, and I feared my children may be seduced by guns as seemingly “cool” objects. This event compelled me to start investigating guns and making work that amplified and isolated the form of the gun and the bullet, forging a new visual impact. This became my series called “Bodyhammers.” Since 1993, the gun violence crisis in America has dramatically worsened, and in 2018 I made a new version of this same work. With each bullet corresponding to the approximate number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. in 2017, the 2018 Death Star consists of 40,000 30-caliber AR-10 rifle bullets and takes on a new, more oppressive scale: a 72-inch diameter. When the audience first encounters the object, they are not quite sure what it is. It looks innocuous, a disco ball perhaps.

Yet, upon closer inspection, when the bullets come into focus, the effect is arresting. Making art out of disaster in and of itself is a tradition I feel comfortable participating in, but it is not enough. I donated 20 percent of the sale of Death Star 2018 to Everytown for Gun Safety, a U.S. based nonprofit advocating for gun control.

Some of your works clearly reveal your training as a restorer. Did you practice restoration after your studies in Florence?

In 1972, I received a grant to study restoration and art history in Florence. I was interested in art history and was not quite sure I had the guts to become an artist. I was a student and I did not practice restoration after that time, but I have such respect for conservators: they truly save art. My early exposure to restoration influenced the way in which I look at art as loaded objects, imbued with an otherwise inaccessible narrative. In making my large-scale charcoal drawing series “Gang of Cosmos” (2012–2020) based on seminal Abstract Expressionist paintings, my process became almost forensic. With each work, I retraced the artist’s process: I considered the hierarchy of Jackson Pollock’s layers of paint and the speed and examined the violence of Joan Mitchell’s brushstrokes. It’s quite intimate to study another artist’s process and hand in this way. My respect for the tradition of restoration also led me to my series called ‘Hungry Ghosts” based on X-rays of historical paintings– works by Titian, Rembrandt, Manet, etc. X-ray images really translate into charcoal perfectly.

What are you working on these days?

Staying alive. I live in NYC, the center of the Coronavirus crisis in America. I was working on exhibitions in NYC and in L.A. However, due to the global pandemic, the shows may be postponed. These exhibitions would focus on my large-scale charcoal drawings from my “Destroyer Cycle” series (2014–2020), images of power, protest, and desperation in today’s America. We are accustomed to swipe and scroll through the endless news cycle, we all become terribly numb to images of war, violence, and trauma. We forget that we are all part of the story, and that we are all responsible for the sins of our fathers. Now we must face a future so uncertain that art is needed now more than ever. It is a true act of freedom. Making art is my one weapon I have against these dark times. Shine on.

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